It’s the night before your kid’s math test and when you peek into their bedroom to ask how it’s going, he throws his hands up in the air and cries, “I can’t do it!” Or maybe you have a younger child, and as you’re watching your toddler try so hard to build a tower for her castle, you can see her frustration growing as the blocks just won’t stack the right way. You try to encourage her by shouting, “It’s OK, you can do it!” Except this seems to have the opposite effect, and she gets even more discouraged and frustrated.

While it might seem like the issue here is obvious (your kid hates math, your toddler wants to make a tower), there’s actually more going on beneath the surface, says Dr. Siggie Cohen, a psychologist specializing in child development.

Per the expert, when your kid says “I can't!” what they’re typically saying is really one of the following:

  • This feels too hard.  
  • I’m overwhelmed and this feels impossible.
  • I don’t want to. 

“Take a moment to pause and consider the context and try to identify what your child may be feeling UNDER their words,” writes Dr. Siggie. She then recommends responding to those feelings instead.

Here’s how that might play out in the examples above:

Child: “I can’t!”
Mom: “You mean it’s hard? You’re right, it is hard. So you’ll need to work harder. Let’s try.”

Child: “I can’t!”
Mom: “You mean this feels impossible? I think you’re overwhelmed, which makes it feel impossible. Let’s take a moment and pause, regroup, breathe and regain trust that you can.”

And as for those situations where your kid tells you they can’t because they simply don’t want to (say, when it’s time to brush their teeth or take out the trash)? Try something along the lines of: “You mean you don’t want to. I get that, sweetie. Sometimes when we don’t want to do something we say we can’t…but we can.”

Per Dr. Siggie, there are some great benefits to this approach: “You’re providing your child with guidance and emotional support, [and] you’re validating how they feel without ‘giving in’ to how they feel.” In other words, you’re acknowledging their feelings (thereby helping your child not feel alone in their feelings while feeling seen) without telling them to just throw in the towel. It’s a win-win. (Now if only there were some magic words that would help your kid when she cries, “I’m bored!”)

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